against biological determinism

So I’ve been meaning to write something in response to conservative dweeb Kevin Williamson’s dweeby screed against Laverne Cox for dweeb magazine The National Review, but Jacob Bacharach pretty much beat me to it:

the Internet bravely rushed in to declare that scientifically she is. “He doesn’t understand the complexity . . .” And we were all treated to a series of semi-coherent expostulations on various human intersex conditions, as if that hasanything to do with the social right of an autonomous human individual to decide whether she wants to live her life as a man or a woman or both or neither, less yet to determine against which physical expression of our species rather aesthetically unfortunate genital she wishes to press her own. If we make the concretized and inevitably temporary axioms of popular (I emphasize) science the preconditions of moral acceptability, then we are in big trouble, people. If Laverne Cox decides tomorrow that she wishes to be referred to by the pronoun Qfwfq  and that her gender is henceforth Parthogenetic Quintsexual Proteus Universal then it’s still no skin off my ass, whether ratified by double-blind or by dungeon-master.

Indeed.

For some time, I’ve been deeply uncomfortable with the “their genes are totally gay” defense of gay marriage. For one, the specific genetic cause remains entirely unproven. More importantly, “they can’t help it, so I guess we should let them do it” argument is insulting, and not at all a call for greater sexual or romantic freedom. I get that people were dealing with real political exigency, and the tangible gains have been impressive. But the movement should be for freedom and equal dignity and respect, not for a narrow biological determinism that constrains more than it frees. I mean, think about the logic here: if the right to engage in homosexual behavior stems from an immutable biological attribute of some people, then doesn’t that mean that people who don’t have that attribute can fairly be barred from that behavior? “Sorry, Gary, I know you’d like to sleep with Jim here, but we ran the test and you just aren’t gay.” If we could identify the gay gene, would people applying for gay marriages have to be tested for it before they got one? It would be an absurd impediment to freedom, but it’s also a perfectly logical extension of that kind of thinking.

As the great Yasmin Nair once wrote, “The biology argument, taken to its logical end, suggests that we turn around to the Right or, for that matter, many on the so-called Left who also grant rights based on ‘nature,’ and tell them that it’s okay to discriminate against, kill, maim, brutalize those who might be seen as ‘choosing to be this way.'”

Gender is, of course, a related but separate issue from sexual identity. But I think the same bad logic reigns in a lot of progressive circles: adopting a vision of trans people as being straightforwardly conditioned by their biology and, consequentially, deserving of the right to live the way the want to. This stands in contrast with the alternative, which is that they have the right to pursue whatever self-identity they choose because they are human beings with self-determination and it costs the rest of us absolutely nothing to recognize that right. Andrew Sullivan wrote of the Williamson piece, “the insistence of many transgendered people on the need to permanently reconcile their physical bodies with their mental states is in some ways a rather conservative impulse.” No, the impulse to reconcile yourself in that way is the impulse to own yourself, and that is an entirely non-ideological impulse; it’s the impulse to live as a free human being. What’s conservative is the notion that people have only the right to be that which they can’t help being.

This attitude’s limitations towards gender are revealed in the phenomenon of the young child coming out as trans article. Some 5, 6 year old child will live with a gender identity that’s not the same as the one they were assigned at birth, the parents will allow the child to exist with that identity, the media will pick it up, conservatives will fume, and allies in the progressive world will come to that child’s defense. Well, better than the alternative where it’s just the Kevin Williamsons of the world yelling at parents for loving their child in the best possible way. But whenever these controversies flare up, these progressive allies have a very discomfiting tendency to celebrate these kids precisely to the degree that they represent a symbol of progressive assumptions about gender. “This kid is a boy/girl/intersex! How dare anyone call him/her/they something other than a boy/girl/intersex! They have no choice! They were born that way!” By the time they get done, they’ve pinned the kid down like a butterfly on the wall of a museum. They are just as aggressive in policing someone else’s gender identity as the conservatives they decry; they just police it the other way. I always end up thinking, you know, guys, maybe someday this kid will have something to say about it.

And that leads to the biggest problem with biological determinism: it is profoundly unfriendly to people whose gender identities continue to evolve. Because as people who have exposure to many actual trans people know– in contrast with those who are simply internet allies– it is not that rare for trans people to transition to a particular gender identity and then, later, transition again. Yes, there are certainly many trans people who are born thinking that they have a gender identity other than that they were assigned at birth, who transition to that identity, and who remain comfortable within it for the rest of their days. That’s great. But there are also people who experience their own gender as a shifting and complex phenomenon. I’ve known some in my real life. Some people who were assigned the male gender at birth transition to female for awhile, then transition back. Some refuse to adopt one particular gender identity at all, because that does not reflect their own, lived experience and feelings. Life is complicated, gender is complicated. So: are these people deficient? Should they not have the right to continue to explore and evolve and change? Are they somehow guilty of dishonesty? That’s an absurd, ugly stance to take. Yet if you say that gender transitions are not always a permanent phenomenon,  in some environs of the online world, you will be immediately labelled transphobic and a bigot. And so a movement that is meant to liberate subtly conditions some people to distrust their own, real, personal experience of gender identity. “Trans people are born that way and that’s it, says I, progressive ally” is just another way to tell some people they’re living the wrong way.

None of this is to say that gender is a choice or that trans people are just acting or that there’s nothing intrinsic about what they feel and experience. As Bacharach says,

I’m sure genetic inheritance and gene expression do influence sexuality; likewise, intelligence and hair color and the desire to eat, or not to eat, cilantro; but the desperate reductivism that keeps popping up to declare that this or that immensely complex trait is the result of some butterfly-pinned nucleotide—and the attendant desire to draw some kind of socioeconomic conclusion therefrom—reeks of both the alchemical and the eugenic.

Are some conservative jerks going to exploit the mutability, complexity, and sheer variety of human gender experience to undermine the right to live the way you want to live? Yeah. Sure. To adopt a biological determinist viewpoint simply because it’s rhetorically or politically convenient is a terribly misguided thing to do, a choice to play ball on the conservative home court. Don’t do it.

I think, frankly, that people who have a strict “born this way” attitude towards gender are guilty of thinking like Kevin Williamson. Maybe they wanted to think that through.

36 Comments

  1. “‘the insistence of many transgendered people on the need to permanently reconcile their physical bodies with their mental states is in some ways a rather conservative impulse.’ No, the impulse to reconcile yourself in that way is the impulse to own yourself, and that is an entirely non-ideological impulse; it’s the impulse to live as a free human being. What’s conservative is the notion that people have only the right to be that which they can’t help being.”

    Are those two things mutually exclusive?

      1. Your point could just as well be folded into his–that wanting to own oneself by having a unified adherence to an arbitrarily constructed gender and sex identity is wanting to own oneself in a “conservative” way.

        I’m not saying that Sullivan ever makes any sense any time he ever invokes the phrase “conservative,” just that your point doesn’t go far enough to contradict his.

        1. I dunno. Sullivan was the one saying it was a conservative impulse, so isn’t it up to him to explain why he thinks that? I thought this post was just saying it was a pretty human impulse to be what you wanna be. If you want to shoehorn that into something else and put a party label on it, then the guy who wants the party label is the one with the burden of explanation.

          1. It was a joke about how burden of proof arguments are really just shorthand for I don’t care to pursue this any further.

  2. I’ve often pointed out to people on the “cultural left” that if you believe that a biological male can be born with genetic affinity to desire to be a woman, you’re also tacitly supporting the idea that many/most cisgendered women are born with identical inclinations. They tend to deny this, because in theory the academic is still mostly “blank slate” when it comes to cisgendered behavior.

    Sadly, the logical inconsistency isn’t surprising, because too much of the modern left tends to start from the precept of “what can we do to challenge the existing social order?” Thus any argument (no matter how ill-thought-out) which is seen to advance some aspect of the “subaltern” is lauded. I’m nowhere near as doctrinaire of a Marxist as I was ten years ago, but I do wish the modern left would seriously think about ideology and their own priors before coming to the table with prescriptions of what is to be done.

    1. I think this is a really good point. I hadn’t even thought to connect the failure to think about ideology to the tendency of the contemporary mainstream “left” to seek short term tactical advantages without even acknowledging the potential cost to long term strategic thinking and action. I’m reminded particularly of the toxic antipathy so many “leftists” had towards those of us who refused to support Obama just because Romney was worse. I can understand voting for Obama in those circumstances, but to fail to understand the long term consequences of that mindset struck me as incredibly counter-productive. I think you’ve identified a core reason for that ignorance; liberals reject ideology because they think their empirical focus raises them above it. In other words, their ideology includes a denial of its character as an ideology.

      Although I would modify your articulation of that mindset to “‘what can we do to [improve] the existing social order?’” for the same reason I put “left” in scare quotes; what we think of as the left has no desire to fundamentally change the social order, just tweak it to make it more compassionate or more fair. So technocratic capitalism is fine, so long as the hierarchies it creates are not based on race, gender, sexuality etc and those at there are mechanisms to prevent those at the bottom of the hierarchy from being totally destroyed.

      1. I understand what you mean about their desire is to improve meritocracy, not actually threaten it. But I meant challenge in a rather weak sense. As Freddie has written, too many cultural liberals approach politics in a pseudo-magical fashion, where activism is just seen as “speaking truth to power” or even just shouting down people you disagree with. No matter if it doesn’t help achieve your policy agenda in the slightest, or even if you don’t have a policy agenda on the issue to speak of. Just saying vaguely threatening things, and publicly professing the right “left” mantras is enough.

        Just to give you an example, I have a background interest in human genetics. Most geneticists agree that it makes sense to talk about races in a genetic sense, because there is continental-wide variation in the human genome, which displays rather sharp disjuncts in places. Despite some rankles (e.g., pygmies and Khoisan not being very closely related to other Sub-Saharan Africans) it aligns pretty well with the folk understanding of race. So well you can do genetic testing of people of mixed ancestry and pin down the percentage they are African, European, Asian, or Native American fairly well.

        But talk about this with the wrong kind of liberal, and they sort of flip out. They go on about how race is a social construct (which it is, in a sociological sense), we are all 99.9% genetically identical (not quite true, but beside the point), and how you should use the term “population group” rather than “race” because of the messy history of the latter term’s use in 19th century scientific racism.

        But this is all beside the point. Using the term race versus population group does nothing to actually address structural inequalities between blacks and whites within the U.S. I’m not even convinced that having a bunch of academics go on news shows and say “race is real” versus “race is a floating signifier” actually would cause one iota of difference in popular perception, let alone change a damn thing one way or another. But policing your own, and other’s speech is so much easier than, you know, actually mobilizing a mass social movement to achieve political change.

        1. “But policing your own, and other’s speech is so much easier than, you know, actually mobilizing a mass social movement to achieve political change.”

          I agree; it’s much easier. So much easier that doing the one doesn’t really affect your ability to do the other. Which is why I find it kind of a meaningless thing to point out.

  3. Should an anorexic woman be able to surgically remove her stomach? I dunno man. Dysmorphia is dysmorphia … performing gender is one thing, surgical mutilation is quite another.

          1. But there are more bodies than just the person with body dysmorphic disorder involved. The surgery won’t perform itself. If the surgeon believes a person is harming themselves with the surgery, should they still perform it? Does the patient’s self-ownership trump the doctor’s ability to control her own labor? What about the doctor’s ethical requirement to do no harm?

            (note that this isn’t about a patient refusing to consent to life-saving treatment,just a patient demanding surgery the medical establishment has concluded is destructive)

          2. The concept of ownership is metaphor to a particular culture’s relationship with certain objects. Anthropology shows us all kinds of variance in and alternatives to this idea. You aren’t going to be able to mine any universally valid ethical gold from it. Even in our own culture, ownership is subject to dispute and adjudication. If the ownership interest in one’s body alienable? Why not, all other property interests are. So perhaps someone has a lien on your body. Maybe your parents do, for the trouble of raising you. Surely we can agree they have an *interest*, I mean, they’d probably be sad if you offed yourself. Maybe the state can be granted an ownership interest too, for providing security or public education or whatever. Oops, I guess you’re not a sovereign individual anymore. Then we can pick apart the concept of individuality…

  4. Freddie, have you also considered how “we own our bodies” might have some negative consequences? why do we try to prevent people from committing suicide? for example. I’m mostly in agreement with you but there have to be limits. What do you think?

      1. Hmm, but then the question is what kind of people would we have to become in order to implement such a radically individualistic account of rights. If I found my depressed roommate lying in bed with pill bottles strewn all over, I am going to try to save his life, then call his family, get him psychiatric help, etc. Not because I don’t respect his choice but because I think his choice is irrelevant. We might argue about what the limits of such interference might be but how can communities flourish when we allow each other to die because it was our choice, without adequate reason. Why should the choices of people in a compromised state(the mentally ill, severely depressed, drug addicted etc.) outweigh the judgement of those who are not so compromised. That is why we as a society seek reasons to inscribe our rights. I want to die because I have a terminal disease that will lead to great suffering is making an argument or a right inscribed in reason. But such reasons must be given and institutions are needed to mediate these reason-choice-act syllogisms. The radical individualism you advocate seems to give choice qua choice primacy. But I believe this is too nihilistic to be sustainable for a society. Rights generate duties to respect the rights of others. Hoe can such duties be sustained when a people, surely indistinguishable from Nietzsche’s Last Men, believe that all that matter are their choices?

        1. People who attempt suicide and fail rarely commit suicide again. It is not a rational choice but a reaction to an acute crisis.

  5. The biological determinism argument for innate, inborn homosexuality grew in part out of work done by Simon LeVay in the 1980s. He published a peer-reviewed article in a medical journal describing his findings, but I don’t know what the state of the scientific consensus on his work is today.

    I do know that during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, there was very much a sense that closeted gay men were traitors and quislings who were either holding back progress in recognizing the disease and finding a cure or were actively thwarting it. The biological determinism approach was appealing then essentially as a crowbar to force open the closet door. That utility is largely gone today, and as you say, it’s ultimately a conservative argument.

    I do think that Gen X gay men have a problem recognizing the innate conservatism of their world view. I know I have, and Yasmin Nair’s work has been crucial to understanding this. I also think that it’s proper and just to give Gen X gay men a break and understand how AIDS was an existential crisis for an entire generation. The harshness and fundamental conservativeness of some of our politics reflects that.

  6. Yes to all of this. I’ve said pretty much this, in fewer words and less elegantly, on liberal blogs and gotten the equivalent of a blank stare in return. To me it’s all straightforward and I’m confused by the confusion.

  7. P.S. If someone’s sexual orientation is whatever they say it is, then that pretty much erases the closet. But the closet is real.

  8. As someone who is trans myself, thank you for writing this. It’s always bothered me to see the implicit assumption that if you’re not gay/trans/poly/etc your entire life, you’re just ‘making it up’ or otherwise somehow being insincere. I think part of it comes out of the conception of “identity” as something fixed and unchangeable, rather than a description of how someone is at the moment, even though human psychology is rarely so cut-and-dried. While I have no doubt that for many or even most queer people their identity is strongly innate and steady over time, for some of us gender or sexuality is a more fluid thing, and our experiences are no less valid for it.

  9. In ordinary English, does “woman” mean an adult of female gender? Or an adult of female sex? Because I think this determines whether Laverne Cox is properly called a man or a woman.

    If I understand correctly, English speakers have drawn a distinction between “sex,” which comprises the physical characteristics of being male or female (genitals, hormones, chromosomes, etc.) and “gender,” which is the social role prescribed for an organism of a certain sex. It would seem, then, that Laverne Cox is a person who is of the male sex, but the female gender.

    I had certainly thought that “woman” meant a person of the female sex in ordinary usage. Merriam-Webster’s defines “woman” as an “adult female person,” and defines “female” as “of or relating to the sex that can produce young or lay eggs.” This matches with my experience that, when we talk about a person who departs from gender norms, we continue to refer to that person by the sex-matched word. We call Joan of Arc a “woman,” even though she performed in the masculine gender role. We call Mary Read and Anne Bonny “women,” even though they dressed as men and acted like men on their pirate ships. The persons of female sex who fought and died in the Civil War while concealing their sex are nonetheless called women. The Emperor Caligula sometimes dressed up as a woman and insisted on being called one, but is nonetheless called a man today. If I’m right, then the English word for Laverne Cox is “man,” despite being of female gender.

    But if I’m wrong, and “woman” in ordinary usage means a person of female gender, then Laverne Cox should be called a woman. In which case, I’d like to know, is there an English word for an adult of the female sex, irrespective of gender? And what is it?

    For that matter, if I’m right, then I’d like to know if there’s an English word for an adult of the female gender, irrespective of sex? If not, maybe we should invent one, and a male-gender counterpart for it.

    1. We would also need a different term for those women who are infertile, or perhaps both them and also those capable of conceiving, but not of carrying a child fully to term. We should of course conduct some kind of speculative surgical inquiries to tell those who are and aren’t in each category, for fear of incorrectly describing an infertile person as female, and therefore as a ‘full woman.’ I mean, producing young is all that matters, correct?

      Similarly, it would be impossible to actually declare any individual in history who never bore a child to term (such as Joan of Arc) a ‘woman’, as that would be a pure piece of speculation on the part of the historian. We need to confine ‘women’s history’ to exclusively describing those individuals to those we can confirm (preferably with multiple sources, of course) carried a child to term.

      Or just take people at their word.

      1. Merriam Webster’s does not say that a woman is a person who can lay eggs or produce young. It says that a woman is a person of the sex that can do so. All the world’s human eggs (and of any mammalian species for that matter) are produced by females; that a minority of females are unable to do so is irrelevant. By the same token, humans are of the species capable of language; that some humans are mute and unable to sign is likewise irrelevant.

        We do not take people at their word about any aspect of their identities. You would not take me at my word if I said I were a multibillionaire, or a French poodle, or Napoleon Bonaparte, or an SVR assassin, or a Mohegan. Even Laverne Cox does not claim that words alone put an end to the question; only by adopting a stereotypically female mode of dress, grooming and appearance does Laverne Cox expect to be called a woman. Whether Laverne Cox IS a woman depends on what the word “woman” means to ordinary English speakers. Which was the question I asked, and to which I still have no answer.

  10. “For some time, I’ve been deeply uncomfortable with the “their genes are totally gay” defense of gay marriage.”

    Incidentally, the concept of people being born gay is, I believe, the only reason for acceptance, by most of the public, of many gay-roles.

    If it ever becomes understood that there is a significant “nurture” component in becoming gay (which should be already quite easy to prove or refute statistically), you can kiss goodbye gay-teachers, gay-boy-scout-leaders, gay-parenting, and probably gay-marriage too. Hardly anyone wants their children (and any children, really) to be converted, and so any possibility of recruitment and conversion would create a, I believe, a powerful backlash.

    So, my advice to you (as an enthusiast of “gay-rights”) would be to keep your doubts about biological gay-determinism to yourself. Try to convince yourself that gay-ness is indeed 100% genes-determined.

    1. Twin studies pretty well prove that homosexuality can’t be 100% genetic, although it almost certainly is partly genetic. Identical twins have exactly the same DNA, but if one twin is gay, the other twin is gay only about 50-60% of the time. If homosexuality were purely genetic, identical twins would always have the same orientation. On the other hand, identical twins are much more likely to be the same orientation than fraternal twins, despite having exactly the same environment. So genes almost certainly do play a role.

      On the other hand, it’s a huge, huge leap from “homosexuality is partly caused by environment” to “gay parents/teachers/scout leaders will make the children gay.” There are tons and tons of post-conception influences on development other than the parent-figures’ orientation. Almost 100% of gay kids are raised by straight parents, and the parents’ straight orientation has no effect whatsoever on the gay kids’ orientation. I see no reason to assume that parents’ or teachers’ orientation is any factor at all in determining kids’ orientation, much less the dominant factor.

      1. Hmm, wasn’t there a study by, what’s his name, Regnerus? Besides, “no reason to assume that parents’ or teachers’ orientation is any factor at all” would certainly seem to the average person like an affront to common sense. Plus all the activists’ efforts, gay parades, etc.

        It seems that currently the public in the US and Europe is firmly convinced that “they are born that way”, which explains the tolerance.

        In other (democratic/non-theocratic) parts of the world the public assumes a strong environmental factor, which leads to this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_LGBT_propaganda_law , denounced in the west as an “anti-gay law”.

        That’s the only difference, as far as I can tell. I see no reason to believe that should the American public realize that sexual orientation is shaped, to a significant degree, by the environment, it won’t lead to the same consequences, same sort of laws and restrictions.

    2. So, my advice to you (as an enthusiast of “gay-rights”) would be to keep your doubts about biological gay-determinism to yourself. Try to convince yourself that gay-ness is indeed 100% genes-determined.

      No. This sort of thinking leads to the Dark Side.

      In the counterfactual scenario where someone discovered strong evidence that orientation was completely cultural, then that’s what they should say. If it caused a backlash which hindered or even reversed gay rights progress, that would be a great tragedy, but that’s no justification for lying. That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.

  11. So far as I know, Regnerus never claimed that children of gay parents were more likely to be gay. What he did claim was that children of gay parents were more likely to have low grades, trouble with the law, and attempted suicide. Since almost all the children he studied were the children of divorced parents, one of whom came out as gay after the divorce, the finding is meaningless. Everybody already knew that children of divorce are likelier to have problems, including the children of straight parents.

    I cannot see why you think it’s “common sense” that gays are able to turn children gay. Common sense says the opposite. Straight parents, teachers, and a constant climate of hatred, where “homo” and “fag” are epithets directed against any boy who fails to conform, and homosexuality is denounced as an offense against God – all of these do not suffice to make gay kids straight. Why would you imagine that straight kids’ orientation would be so much more malleable than gay kids’? Not all the gay teachers and parents in the world, not all the religious preaching in the world, and not all the death threats in the world would be enough to make me want to have sex with someone of my own sex. That seems to be the attitude of most of my fellow straights, too. No matter whether the reasons why I am the way I am are genetic, environmental, or both, I still want the right to pursue sexual relations with a person of the sex that interests me. By what right, then, would I deny that same opportunity to gays?

    I suggest that the difference between the gay-tolerant countries and Russia, Iran or Uganda is not different beliefs on what causes homosexuality, but different levels of individualism. For complex historical reasons, American and European culture are highly individualist and less willing to force conformity with traditional values on people who don’t fit into traditional institutions. Russia, Iran and Uganda are less individualist and correspondingly more willing to use force to reshape individuals from the way they are made, or the way they grow, into the way society wants them to be.

  12. I checked, there was the finding there that “children raised in same-sex homes are markedly more likely to … Identify as bisexual, lesbian or gay”: http://www.focusonthefamily.com/about_us/focus-findings/family-formation-trends/regnerus-family-structures-study.aspx , which, of course, doesn’t prove much, since most of them, I imagine, are, after all, biological children of homosexuals. There are stories, however, like this one: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/opinion/this-gender-meddling-must-stop/story-e6frfhqf-1226171124121

    Personally I don’t care and have no opinion. But, like I said, I believe, the average individual, knowing that sexual orientation is not 100% determined by genes but (say) 50% formed by the environment, would certainly protest against some things. Against glamorization, public display – definitely. Against normalization – likely.

    Individualism? What does it have to do with who can adopt, who can be a teacher or role model? What kinds of parades are glamorous and what kinds are despicable?

    Anyway, don’t you remember a massive “this is the way I was born” campaign some years ago? One message repeated again and again. You don’t believe it played an important role? You want to try again, without it, with a more nuanced justification instead? Are you sure?

    1. Thank you for the information. Although I don’t have access to the original Regnerus report, it looks like I was wrong about his not claiming a relationship between same-sex parents and gay children. However, as I mentioned, the so-called “same-sex parents” were in fact, in almost every case, actually opposite-sex parents one of whom later came out as gay. See here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/closeread/2012/06/a-faulty-gay-parenting-study.html

      I hope you’re mistaken that public acceptance of gays rests solely on the belief that homosexuality is completely genetic, but even if you’re right, I’m still not going to lie about it. Based on the evidence I have seen, the pure genetic explanation is false. A movement that depends on lies for its survival does not deserve to survive. That’s why, in the thread above, even though I have no problem with a biological male choosing to wear dresses, wigs, and lipstick if that’s what makes that person happy, I’m still not prepared to call that biological male a “woman” until I’m convinced that that is indeed true.

      1. Sure. Another way to look at all this is that “biological determinism” is just one component of determinism. Not only our genetic traits, but also the environment, and everything else is predetermined. There is only one universe, and no reason to believe that a different one is possible. And so it goes.

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